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The wind has changed in India’s capital, though not in a way that might disperse the ever more noxious smog produced by the thousands of new cars that hit the streets each week. Since the November terrorist attack on Mumbai, India’s richest and most populous city, magazine and newspaper headlines have called for the country to get serious and make real “war on terror.”

India is no stranger to jihadist terrorism. In 2007, there were lethal bombings in the cities of Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, and Delhi. In 2006, Pakistan-based terrorists, helped by local accomplices, set off a series of explosive devices on Mumbai’s commuter trains that killed 209 people. But November’s attack was different. Mumbai’s “11/26,” as it is called here, targeted sectors of Indian society that, because of wealth or position, have long believed they were shielded from terrorism.

Most previous attacks were aimed either at the masses or at officialdom. The slaughter of the former has generally had little impact on public policy; thousands of poor people die in insurgent bombings, train wrecks, bus mishaps, and crowd panics every year, but in a nation with a population of over 1 billion people, these deaths are of startlingly little political or social consequence. At the same time, politicians and other high officials have enjoyed elaborate protections since the assault on India’s parliament in Delhi in December 2001. This time, by going after guests at Mumbai’s top two Indian-owned hotels, November’s terrorists struck a blow at India’s ruling class.

In India, five-star hotels like the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi-Trident are sanctuaries for the privileged and affluent. India’s elites go to them to shop, make deals, dine at the country’s best restaurants, and entertain on a scale impossible in small Mumbai apartments. The hotels combine the functions of a country club, an upscale shopping mall, and a well-appointed office building. People save up for months for lunch or even a coffee at the Taj, to buy some time insulated from the noise, crowds, and heat of real India, or to luxuriate in a polished Bollywood version of it. Well connected and well educated, the kind of person who regularly goes to dinner at the Oberoi or the Taj is likely to look down on the dirty business of Indian politics. Now that same class feels insecure for the first time.

As so often in the global conflict against jihadist terrorism, the Mumbai terrorists and their backers benefited from a clear understanding of their target society and its weaknesses. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based group believed to have carried out the attacks, had previously demonstrated a highly tuned sense of Indian society when attacking India’s parliament in 2001: exploiting reflexive deference to officialdom, its gunmen drove a bureaucrat’s official sedan to the attack and were waved through initial security.

In November in Mumbai, the terrorists understood how gunning down members of India’s English-speaking cultural, social, and financial elite would reverberate around the subcontinent and the globe. They knew they could rely on the incompetence of Mumbai’s police. They appreciated much better than the Indian authorities how the impact of their attacks would be magnified by India’s new 24-hour news channels, and how much more powerful a multi-day siege might be than a single devastating explosion.

They were genuinely modern in a way that the law-enforcement institutions that fought them are not. The troops that confronted the terrorists were dressed like top Western special forces but were not up to the job; dressed in civilian clothes, the terrorists operated with the skillfulness of well-trained commandos.

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Those calling for an Indian “war on terror” want to repair and modernize the intelligence, paramilitary, and bureaucratic structures that failed to forestall the attacks and to defeat them once they had begun. But the pundits and the newly mobilized upper middle class also want a revolution in the country’s response to Pakistan’s use of terrorism as a means of proxy warfare. India’s armed forces have never struck first against Pakistan. Now many of India’s citizens want a more robust and aggressive approach. One of the main obstacles to such an approach is, ironically and troublingly, India’s new ally, the United States.

As Indian commentators have pointed out, if the Mumbai attacks had been carried out against the United States by citizens of a hostile neighbor, they would have been considered an act of war by the state that aided or abetted them. The United States toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for sheltering al Qaeda, whereas it seems likely that elements of the Pakistani state actually trained and equipped the terrorists who attacked Mumbai.

The stated goals of LeT include the restoration of Muslim rule in all of Central and South Asia. Though theoretically banned in Pakistan, LeT has operated openly for many years from its headquarters in Lahore under the name Jamaat ud Dawa. It has enjoyed considerable political clout because it runs hundreds of schools and clinics in areas where the Pakistani state fails to provide its citizens with even minimal services. Under foreign pressure, the Pakistani government banned Jamaat in December, but the group is expected to rename and re-form itself soon, and its properties and bank accounts remain untouched by government action.

As always with Pakistan, it is impossible to know if the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officers who allegedly helped coordinate what looked more like a commando operation than a terrorist attack were “rogue agents” acting on their own, or whether they had at least tacit permission from the Director General of the ISI, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, or the head of the Pakistani army, Ashfaq Kiyani, who is himself a former ISI chief.

It is widely believed in India that the Pakistani military may have given the go-ahead to the terrorist attacks because they knew it would lead to an Indian mobilization that would in turn justify a shift of Pakistan’s forces away from the Afghan frontier to the border with India. The Pakistani security establishment loathes fighting the Taliban and its allies in those tribal areas; after all, it was through the Taliban that Pakistan was able to run Afghanistan as a kind of colony while keeping the pro-Russian, pro-Indian Northern Alliance at bay. Moreover, it has always been both easy and politically useful in Pakistan to mobilize popular support against the Indian “threat”—never mind that it was Pakistan that started all three wars with its much larger neighbor during the decades before both countries obtained nuclear weapons.

It does seem unlikely that Pakistan’s civilian government had advance warning of the Mumbai attacks. However, in the aftermath of the attacks, the government has officially hewed to the absurd line that there is no evidence that the attackers were of Pakistani origin—even though Pakistani journalists have interviewed the father of captured terrorist Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab in his home village.

In the recent past, Pakistan has been able to back terrorist groups in various parts of India safe in the knowledge that its huge neighbor would never strike back. Though India’s vast military is quick to react with overwhelming force and draconian methods against local rebellions, India has tended to be pusillanimous when confronted by Pakistani-sponsored terrorism. In December 1999, after Pakistani terrorists hijacked a Delhi-bound Air India plane in Kathmandu and took it to Kandahar, Afghanistan, the Indian government agreed to their demands and released three high-value terrorist detainees, including the future founder of the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) terrorist group and a jihadist who went on to decapitate the American Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl. When, two years later, Pakistani-supported gunmen from JeM and LeT attacked India’s parliament in New Delhi, India mobilized its troops and broke off relations with Pakistan for nine months, but did no more.

Since November’s attack, however, the Indian government, under pressure from public opinion, has seriously considered attacking the many militant training camps in the Pakistani-controlled sections of Kashmir. There is good reason to believe that American pressure has been the primary reason for India’s decision to hold back for now. Pakistan made clear to the United States that it would relieve military pressure on the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the mountainous areas adjoining Afghanistan if America did not restrain its ally. The U.S., as so often in the past, gave in to Pakistan’s threat of decreased cooperation.

This was despite the fact that Pakistan’s forces have been notably unsuccessful in depriving America’s enemies in the region of a safe haven in Pakistani territory. (The second-rate troops dispatched to the frontier areas have suffered high casualties and humiliating setbacks, while the Pakistani army has generally kept its crack troops on the Indian border.) Indeed, there have even been numerous occasions when Pakistani military and paramilitary forces have given direct assistance to the Taliban on the border with Afghanistan.

Another factor explaining India’s restraint thus far seems to have been a strong hint from Islamabad that Pakistan might go nuclear in the event of an Indian attack, despite the promise in November of the new president, Asif Zardari, that his country will never launch a first nuclear strike.

It may also have been the case that the Indian government feared that it could not successfully pull off surgical strikes against Pakistan. This fear is humiliating for India’s military. But the failure of India’s vaunted special forces to bring the Mumbai attacks to a quick and successful conclusion has almost certainly sapped the enthusiasm of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration to go after targets that would be hard to hit and whose destruction would likely result in significant civilian casualties.

Still, American pressure on India not to take any kind of direct action against terrorist bases in Pakistan-controlled territory has been widely seen as a betrayal, and as proof that the United States will always subordinate Indian national interests to its complicated dance with Pakistan and its war in Afghanistan.

It is all the more unfortunate that this apparent betrayal has taken place at a time when large sections of Indian public opinion are readier than ever to make common cause with America.

There is still a good chance that in the wake of the November Mumbai attack, India and the United States could continue to develop a closer anti-terrorist alliance. However, in the recent past, American approaches to the region have been bedeviled by ignorance or misperception of various South Asian political realities. These include a radical underestimation of the power of anti-Americanism, especially among India’s security establishment, naiveté about Pakistan’s goals and methods in the region, and a tendency to treat both India and Pakistan as if they had the same ability and willingness to control “non-state actors” within their territory as do the United States and other Western countries.

 

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The Mumbai attacks and the reaction to them should have opened foreign eyes to the peculiar vulnerability of rising, globalized India to international terrorism. To watch the siege of Mumbai unfold, as I did first-hand in November, was to see a clash between India’s burnished image as a modern economic titan and the social and political realities that her boosters prefer to forget.

The confusion and disorganization of the city’s response to an invasion by as few as ten terrorists was a sharp reminder that India’s public sector has little of the entrepreneurial vitality of the newly liberated private sector. This is a country in which the first, second, and third worlds coexist within the same physical space.

The idea that security can be significantly improved given the vast endemic chaos of India’s cities seems doubtful. No one even knows if there are 4 or 8 million homeless migrants living on the streets of New Delhi, almost all of them unregistered in any way with organs of the state. Mumbai’s harbor, the main port of entry into India’s commercial and financial hub, is essentially under the control of Dawood Ibrahim, an organized-crime kingpin turned sponsor of anti-Hindu terrorism living in exile in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Everyone knows this, but Ibrahim’s organization has too much influence over many politicians and officials for anything to be done about it.

A recent poll showed that many Indians believe the police to be the most corrupt institution in the nation. It is impossible to exaggerate the extent of the flouting of rules and laws to which obedience is taken for granted in most developed countries. Even given the amount of form-filling the bureaucracy requires of legitimate visitors to the country, the idea that the Indian authorities can significantly improve their ability to keep tabs on either Pakistani infiltrators or their allies and relations among India’s mostly loyal Muslim minority is far-fetched. As Vinod Mehta, the editor of India’s leading news magazine, Outlook, wrote in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, “We are a rotten state whose insides have been pillaged by politicians and bureaucrats who masquerade as public servants.”

 

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Among other security weaknesses, India’s internal intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), is only 25,000 strong. Worse, it wastes much of its resources spying on innocent Western visitors. Perhaps because its ranks are dominated by men who came of age during India’s most anti-Western and pro-Soviet period, the IB is particularly obsessed with American and British visitors, rather than with potential Islamist terrorists. One British traveler who crossed the Tibetan border in order to take his sick horse to a veterinarian was held in prison for seven months as a spy. American journalists and NGO workers are routinely tailed and harassed on suspicion of being CIA agents. If the IB and India’s foreign intelligence service, known as Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), were less obsessed with the CIA and MI6, they might do a better job of preventing attacks like those in Mumbai.

This strange cold-war hangover is one of the quirks that American officials are going to have to understand as the United States inevitably becomes more involved in the complicated politics of the subcontinent.

Something of the flavor of Russophilia and related dislike for the United States still prevalent among Indian officials is conveyed by an article by the prominent Indian terrorism expert B. Raman, a former senior official of RAW, on the occasion of Vladimir Putin’s last visit to India in 2007.

Raman wrote that he was delighted that Putin was the chief guest at the celebrations of India’s Republic Day, an honor never extended to any U.S. President, but furious that “the excitement over Putin’s visit is confined to the policy making circles, the national security managers, the Communists and other leftists, and the media.” He continued:

The comfort level between Indian public servants and their Russian counterparts continues to be high. Indian public servants do not feel as comfortable with their American counterparts. . . . Indian public servants have too many painful memories of the innumerable occasions when they were bitten by the US—right from the day India became independent in 1947. How the U.S. tried to obstruct the development of heavy industries! How President John Kennedy was thwarted by the U.S. Congress when he wanted to help India in the construction of a steel plant at Bokharo! How the U.S. repudiated its solemn contractual commitments with regard to the nuclear power station at Tarapore after India carried out its nuclear tests of 1974! . . . Can you cite a single instance since our independence when the USSR or Russia had betrayed India and its people? It stood by us through thick and thin.

Indian cold-war attitudes to America have often evolved into a new form of paranoia as India has become wealthier and more powerful in the region. Many senior Indian military officers believe that India’s expanding sphere of influence is being violated and encircled by a United States whose primary goal is quashing India’s rise to superpower status.

An interesting example of this attitude is provided by a recently published, well-received book by General S. Padmanabhan, the former chief of India’s army staff. Titled The Writing on the Wall: India Checkmates America 2017, it envisages a war between India and an American-Pakistani alliance. It would be an understatement to say that it assumes American malice toward India. Like many Indian commentators, Padmanabhan sees the Bush administration’s preemption doctrine and the invasion of Iraq as a direct threat to India, and envisages an alliance between India, Russia, Iran, and Vietnam to counter that threat. Padmanabhan’s fictional scenario climaxes in a successful Indian cyberattack that cripples American government and commerce. On the way to bringing America to her knees, India finally becomes a permanent member of the UN Security Council, thanks to her Russian and Chinese friends.

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Just as many influential Pakistanis believe that the U.S. and NATO war against the Taliban in Afghanistan is linked to an Indian plot to deprive Pakistan of “strategic depth,” many Indian policymakers assume that there are sinister anti-Indian motives at work in America’s relationship with Pakistan.

India misconstrues the motivations for confusing U.S. policies in South Asia: there is probably no one in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment to whom it has even occurred that America should conspire to frustrate India’s rise to regional power. Nevertheless, the United States consistently provokes Indian mistrust by its contradictory and self-defeating policies toward Pakistan.

India is right to note, for instance, that the F-16 fighter jets sold to Pakistan at subsidized rates under the rubric of anti-Taliban and anti-terrorist assistance are really only useful as a defense against the Indian Air Force. The sale was a wasteful and destructive gesture that made a mockery of the pressure Washington was supposedly trying to apply on Islamabad to get serious about the Taliban resurgence. Worse, it critically undermined the position of those Indian opinion-leaders who have been pushing hard for a closer relationship with the United States.

American officials have consistently underestimated the amount of suspicion (the great Indian vice, according to E.M. Forster) their words and actions inspire in New Delhi, just as they have naively underestimated the duplicity of America’s supposed allies in Islamabad. If the United States is to build an effective working relationship with India’s diplomatic and security establishment—an achievement that might make Pakistan a more rather than less pliable “friend” in the battle against jihadist terrorism and the Taliban—it will have to learn how to assuage that suspiciousness and sensitivity to apparent slights. India has had its day of reckoning, and its awakening to the terrorist threat may soon put sobering new pressure on the United States to choose sides between the devil it knows in Pakistan and the chaotic, paranoid, vital, vibrant India that is its natural ally.

 

 

 

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